Can Conservatism Be More Than a Grudge?

Julius Krein

Since the end of the Cold War—and Ronald Reagan’s presidency—Republicans have won only one of eight presidential popular votes (George W. Bush’s narrow win in 2004). Republican candidates of course won two additional electoral college victories during this period: George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. On the whole, however, it is increasingly doubtful whether the GOP as presently constructed is capable of winning a national popular vote, or if it is even trying to do so. Today, the party essentially has no positive policy agenda, garners little support among America’s leading corporations in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street and is almost completely marginalized from academia, Hollywood, and mainstream media.

Despite these obstacles, both of Donald Trump’s campaigns revealed possible paths back to national majorities. In 2016, Trump broke the Democrats’ “blue wall” in the Upper Midwest. In 2020, he made significant inroads among nonwhite working-class voters, demonstrating that any “demographic destiny” predictions may be less certain than previously thought. Nevertheless, the Trump administration was too chaotic and incoherent to consolidate any larger “populist” realignment. Instead, the violent denouement of the Trump presidency further deepened an already growing divide between the Republican base and party elites: at this point it is almost impossible for Republican politicians to appeal to the party’s “populist” wing—now defined largely around Trump’s scandals—without alienating the GOP’s (ever fewer) “respectable” donors and business constituencies, and vice versa. Under these circumstances, even when Republicans can win at the national level, it is very difficult for them to pursue any substantive agenda.

These problems are not merely issues of “communication,” the perennial response of DC consultants. Nor are they simply matters of ideology or even policy. At bottom, the Republican Party faces what might be called a crisis of constituency: the party in its current form cannot serve the constituencies it has, much less those it would need to assemble an electoral majority.

This constituency problem is sometimes simplistically described as the collapse of the old Reagan “three-legged stool.” The neoconservatives discredited themselves in Iraq and other foreign misadventures; the neoliberals were discredited by the financial crisis, American deindustrialization, and the rise of the East Asian development model; and social conservatives have found themselves increasingly marginalized from the mainstream of American society. Moreover, while the Reagan coalition was once held together by its members’ shared opposition to Soviet Communism, today any alliance between defense hawks, libertarians, and social conservatives makes little sense.

All this is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The issue is not merely that the GOP coalition is incoherent, or that the party cannot serve one constituency without antagonizing another. This is practically inevitable in a two-party system, and the Democratic coalition is no less incongruous than the Republican one. There are, however, two important differences between them. First, the Democratic economic base is composed largely of ascendant and prestigious economic sectors and firms, from Silicon Valley to Goldman Sachs, while Republicans are predominantly supported by declining sectors, like natural resource extraction. Second, the Democratic patronage system is coherent, even if the Democratic coalition is not. In other words, the Democratic Party is capable of using policy to directly benefit its various constituencies and to create new ones. Together, both of these factors ensure that Democrats’ patchwork constituencies have reasons to overlook their coalition’s internal contradictions. That is simply not the case on the Republican side.

For instance, parts of President Biden’s Covid relief and infrastructure plans (as of this writing) simply correct for decades of underinvestment and should be embraced by both parties. But other elements are essentially giveaways to key Democratic constituencies, including what are effectively bailouts of financially precarious “blue cities” and, by extension, their public-employee unions. The same might be said of the administration’s proposal for billions in spending on “green” projects without taking any steps to streamline the environmental regulations that contribute to the high cost of infrastructure in the United States. Private sector unions have been getting less and less from Democrats on issues affecting Big Tech and its gig workers, but a Biden proposal throws them a sop in the form of ending “right to work” laws. Or consider other proposals like student loan forgiveness, which would do nothing to address the underlying structural problems facing U.S. higher education, but would benefit core Democratic constituencies in and around universities as well as Democratic-leaning professionals with student debt. Yet perhaps the most egregious case is congressional Democrats’ enthusiasm for repealing limitations on state and local tax deductibility. Effectively a tax cut for the wealthiest residents of America’s wealthiest communities, such a move flies in the face of the party’s professed ideological commitments, drawing some criticism from the Left. But it does serve an important and growing Democratic constituency: upper-middle-class (and above) professionals in major cities. 

Furthermore, Democrats have been more effective at connecting their “cultural” issues to material interests. Diversity criteria on corporate boards, for example, may be mostly symbolic and are criticized for this reason even by some on the left. Yet however superficial, these efforts create a connection between liberal cultural priorities and economic concerns as well as corporate norms—this is the “intersectionality” that matters.

A Republican Congress, by contrast, might cut taxes, and a Republican administration might ease regulations on, say, the coal industry. But Republicans in power would seldom even consider a major infrastructure program with an eye toward their core constituencies, or major spending to bring strategic or high-wage sectors back to the Heartland. On the contrary, conservative think tanks are largely united in their opposition to (for example) agricultural subsidies on free market grounds, in spite of the fact that rural communities are basically the most loyal remaining Republican voting bloc. In short, membership in the Republican coalition typically entails few material benefits and often requires significant economic costs. Indeed, the neoliberal policies championed by Republicans over the last few decades have destroyed much of their former base while disproportionately enriching the opposing party’s donors.

Not coincidentally perhaps, conservative cultural issues are usually presented as autonomous from any material considerations. Being a social conservative means attending an occasional pro-life rally or reading jeremiads against those crazy professors at Yale. But it does not imply thinking about corporate governance reform or using the government to reshape elite private universities, much less restructuring financial markets or the larger economy to better support traditional communities.

Of late, it is increasingly difficult for conservatives to ignore the combination of cultural and economic power wielded against them in the form of “woke capital.” But, lacking an alternative political-economic vision, mainstream Republicans have no response other than to whine a little before drafting the next corporate tax cut proposal. 

Outside the “establishment,” a number of conservative activists are now insisting that they will fight the culture wars “for real” this time, unlike the purported milquetoasts of previous generations. Yet while it may be true that establishment social conservatives—such as Princeton professor Robert P. George—have been laughably ineffective, there is little reason to believe that posting some more vitriolic essays on the internet will make much of a difference at this point. Ironically, it is the most radical firebrands of the American Right, hoping to “red pill” an imaginary silent majority, who are the most naïve believers in the efficacy of earnest opinion journalism. 

As it stands, the Republican Party is incapable of adequately serving its traditional constituencies or offering a viable alternative to any prospective ones. Why, then, does it not change, or simply disappear?

Ideology certainly plays a role—the party’s embrace of libertarian economics severely constrains its ability to use policy to advance real interests, whether partisan or national—but it is hardly a sufficient explanation. Historically, the ideological commitments of American political parties have been relatively flexible. A party that genuinely sought electoral dominance would adapt its ideology accordingly. So why haven’t Republican politicians abandoned Reagan-Bush conservatism (as Trump haltingly and inconsistently began to do in 2016), especially now that it lacks any meaningful popular, intellectual, or economic base?

The best answer, in my view, is that the Republican Party’s remaining connection to the dominant sectors of the American economy occurs through its usefulness as a tool to selectively balance and discipline the members of the Democratic coalition. Big Pharma, for instance, will throw money at the Heritage Foundation to rant against “socialized medicine” whenever talk of the government negotiating drug prices surfaces, but pharma is hardly interested in repealing Obamacare, much less dismantling Medicare. Financial lobbies will rent the Republican Party to ward off troublesome regulations or taxes, but are hardly interested in “sound money” policies or big spending cuts that would derail financial markets, never mind social conservatism. Big Tech will team up with Americans for Prosperity to oppose legislation limiting app store developer fees, all while more aggressively controlling conservative speech online, and so on.

Again, the point is not that the Democratic coalition is perfectly consistent or that its donors are perfectly sincere; they are not. But the relationship between America’s most powerful industries and the Democratic Party is different from their relationship with the Republican Party. These sectors look to the Democrats to positively promote their interests and to the Republicans merely to obstruct any developments adverse to their interests. In other words, the Republican Party’s primary—or even sole—value to “capital” at present lies not in any positive agenda but in the ability to constrain other members of the Democratic coalition. In this respect, the only plausible role for today’s Republican Party is as an obstructionist party. And its obstructionist conservatism—whether in its “principled” libertarian or reflexive “own the libs” shades—is a perfectly serviceable ideology for this role, perhaps the only serviceable one. For that reason, it is hard to see it going away, even if it abandons any pretense of building a majority constituency.

Of course, serving as woke capital’s second-string useful idiots is not exactly what conservative activists and voters signed up for—at least the ones who are not paid by donors to do so. Thus, it should not be surprising that many in the Republican rank and file have turned to “populism” in recent years in order to escape their fate as the “Washington Generals” of American politics, to use Michael Anton’s formulation. Populism, in theory at least, offers a chance at building an electoral majority and exercising power on its behalf, whereas “principled conservatism” does not. 

But Republican populists face significant obstacles beyond the personal failings of Donald Trump. Even the most articulate, astute, and consistent populist would almost certainly lack a meaningful economic base today—not necessarily campaign contributions, but industry groups willing to develop and lobby for an ambitious agenda. After all, the Democratic Party was once a far more populist (and even socially conservative) party, heavily reliant on union funding and so forth. But that model has been scrapped over the last few decades, largely because it came to be seen as uncompetitive. Why should Republican populists fare any better, even if they managed to assemble such a coalition? The easier path is to simply offer populism as a stronger brand of obstructionist conservatism.

Over the last several decades, the old joke about politicians electing new voters has more or less played out in reality. Republicans and Democrats have effectively swapped many of their historical voter blocs. But Democrats also replaced their economic base, while Republicans did not. And as long as the Republican Party lacks any material base that can at least compete for the commanding heights of the U.S. economy, it will also continue to lack any positive agenda and therefore struggle to function as a viable electoral coalition at the national level. Conservatism, to borrow a phrase, will persist only as a grudge—and maybe a profit opportunity for infotainment personalities and a jobs program for failed academics.

It is possible to imagine a new coalition that might have an alternative political-economic vision and therefore support a distinct, positive agenda for the Republican Party. Such a coalition could perhaps consist of the growing number of challengers to big tech monopolies, or of up-and-coming firms seeking to disrupt incumbent multinationals—and therefore eager to take advantage of (different) state industrial policies, as their Asian counterparts have done—and the financial players who might profit under such a scenario. Such a group might also have more interest in “conservative” social issues like stable family formation, or correcting the increasingly ideological and moralistic trends in education and the media. Until something like that emerges, however—an outcome which is neither imminent nor inevitable—Republicans will find it difficult to win national power, and almost impossible to govern even when they do.


Julius Krein is the editor of American Affairs.

This is the first essay in KSR’s new series “The Future of Conservatism”. To submit an essay or op-ed to be featured in this series, contact the editor in chief at alexander_deavila@hks.harvard.edu.

Photo credit: Unsplash – Birmingham Museums Trust.